A real torture underground. Almost non-stop bombardments that can be heard “24 hours a day”, even in the basements, damp and cold. “Terrible conditions” where there is a dire lack of drinking water, food and medicine. Such is the daily life of Ukrainians living in the underground passages of Azovstal Ironworks in Mariupol, as described by Serhiy Volyna.
Commander of the 36and brigade of the ukrainian national navy, it is part of the last bastion of resistance against the kremlin army in this extremely strategic port city for both kiev and moscow. A bitter struggle that forced the Ukrainian armed forces, outdated and outnumbered, to withdraw into the imposing industrial complex. According to Kyiv, more than a thousand civilians have been holed up there for several days, along with Ukrainian soldiers and foreign mercenaries.
“Given the condition of these people and the fighters who are here, we can speak of a real humanitarian catastrophe,” says Serhiy Volyna. The Ukrainian commander spoke for about twenty minutes The duty, via video conference, Wednesday evening. Earlier in the day, in a video posted to social media, he called on the international community to act urgently to carry out a relief operation: “These may be our last days or our last hours,” he then said.
Watch this video: Serhiy Volyna
With distorted features and a full beard, the man who has been at the front against the Russian invader for more than fifty days tells of the hell of the siege of Mariupol. He estimates that Russian forces are ten times more numerous there. “The city is destroyed, burned down, bombed. We currently have hundreds of civilians with us [sous terre], including women, children, the elderly. Many are sick or suffering from various injuries. There is no medication and no way to get medical help. People stay in cellars, they rot in the damp. »
Around him we hear regular coughing in the background, sometimes accompanied by the crackling and beeping of portable transceivers. “We lack drinking water, food…” he continues in a surprisingly calm but determined tone. “Any medical supplies we have here are sucking up the moisture underground. They are useless, the wounds don’t heal, and instead of healing, the wounds get worse. »
It is a mixture of fear, human misery and malaise. Surrounded by walls in which mushrooms grow, “living underground in this cold makes everyone sick,” explains Serhiy Volyna. Anything with “a minimum amount of food”. If you want to fall asleep, you have no choice but to lie down on cardboard. “We sleep on makeshift beds made from materials found on site. The main thing is not to sleep on the floor and not get tuberculosis. »
But to tell the truth, Mr. Volyna sleeps very little. He does not hide the fact that his position as a military officer puts him under additional pressure. “I feel responsible for the civilians and military who are stuck here, these guys who are in my care. »
The last Ukrainian wall
When asked about the number of soldiers present in the 11 km industrial complex2, Serhiy Volyna refuses to come forward on behalf of military secrets. “But what I can say is that there are more than 500 wounded combatants and a hundred civilians wounded, including women and children. The situation is getting worse, with incessant shelling, artillery fire, rocket attacks… The enemy is becoming more aggressive, including dozens of tanks and heavy machinery,” he says. famed for their belligerence but once controversial for their ties to the far right before the faction joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces in 2014. The Russian authorities, for their part, estimate the number of Ukrainian soldiers who took refuge in Azovstal at 2,000.
The Russian takeover of the Azovstal land bordering the Sea of Azov would thus represent the neutralization of the city’s last Ukrainian wall, which is already almost completely controlled by Putin’s army. For Russia it would also mean the capture of one of the largest metallurgical factories in Europe. A maneuver that is far from won for the Russian armed forces: the site would consist of extensive tunnels, already to the advantage of the Kiev troops. Which complicates a possible Russian incursion into the underground. “How do you represent the industrial area? It’s a city within a city, and there are several subterranean levels from the Soviet era. You can’t bomb from above, you have to clean underground. It will take time,” admitted Edouard Basurin, representative of the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, a few days ago.
On Sunday, Mariupol’s last defenders ignored calls to surrender to Russian authorities. Shortly before, Russia had issued an ultimatum ordering them to “lay down their arms”. Enough to fear a major offensive. Except that four days later, on Thursday April 21, President Vladimir Putin decided to rule out the final attack on the Azovstal factory, considering it “not opportune” in this context. “We must preserve the lives and health of our soldiers and officers. There’s no point in going into these catacombs and crawling under these industrial plants,” he said. Instead, the Russian autocrat declared the need to “besiege the area so that not a single fly gets by” or to maintain encirclement of the Ukrainian positions. Before I add without embarrassment that in Mariupol, which has been relentlessly hammered since the beginning of the war, “the work of liberation is a success.”
In the air and on the ground, the Russian enemy dominates in Mariupol “at all levels,” assures Serhiy Volyna. “Our men are losing their lives everywhere and all the time. We don’t have anti-aircraft equipment, we don’t have equipment, we’ve stayed with light weapons, with our humble grenade launcher units. »
Last chance solution
How long can Serhiy Volyna and the hundreds of people trapped underground survive? “Circumstances change very quickly, and to our detriment,” replies the soldier. “Therefore I would not dare speak of days, it is perhaps a matter of hours. The situation is critical and we are asking the leaders of the international community for help. We are constantly taking casualties, we have soldiers killed and wounded, and therefore we cannot speak of positive progress. We are all weak. »
The hope that corridors will be used to evacuate civilians remains in vain for the time being. “You know, today [le mercredi 20 avril], a corridor for civilians was supposed to be established, but in reality this failed as Russian forces continued to bombard from the air and naval artillery and the rockets kept falling. Civilians no longer believe the Russians since the destruction of the maternity ward, where there were babies, families, women giving birth. There was also the bombing of the Mariupol Theater, which housed a volunteers’ center where children were gathered,” specifies commander Volyna. “It is for this reason that civilians are turning to us, begging us to seek help from the international community that could keep them safe. You have lost all faith in the Russian Federation. »
The last chance, according to him, lies in the establishment of an extraction procedure, which would consist of “evacuating them to the territory of a third country”. And this regardless of the state, adds Serhiy Volyna. “He just has to be able to find an agreement between the conflicting parties and ensure security. »
Like a cry from the heart, he calls the international community to action. Because “we think this extraction process is the only possible result for us,” he says. “It’s a call to world leaders, to the diplomatic community, to religious leaders. It must be said loud and clear: civilians are being deprived of their basic right to protection. Civilians are killed by the Russians. Our people need the help of the world. »
Despite everything, Serhiy Volyna remains optimistic. Hope is also what “allows us to persevere,” he admits. “We are now completely surrounded by the Russians. We just have to hope that help will come, that we won’t forget. Being alone and coming to terms with the intruder: the worst-case scenario for the Mariupol survivors.